How Air Canada is Helping to Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade


How do you stop the illegal wildlife trade? One way is to make sure that traffickers can’t get their illegal plant and animal materials to market. And that’s where transportation companies – including airlines – can help.

While Air Canada may be best known for its passenger activities, its freight division, Air Canada Cargo, provides global transportation serving cities around the world. With such a large–scale, international operation, the airline can play a meaningful role in helping to prevent the devastating impact of the illegal wildlife trade. Air Canada recently doubled down on its commitment by signing the Buckingham Palace Declaration (BPD), a set of 11 commitments for transport organizations who are engaged in fighting the trade in illegal wildlife.

October 8, 2020
The team at Air Canada Cargo standing in front of their headquarters
Members of the Montreal Air Canada Cargo operations, procedures, training and commercial teams being awarded the first ever CEIV Live Animals Logistics certification by IATA representatives.   Photo: Air Canada

A Royal Mandate to Stop Illegal Wildlife Trade

United for Wildlife – a group spearheaded by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge and the Royal Foundation – established a Transport Taskforce in 2014 made up of representatives from airports, shipping companies, airlines and law enforcement groups. In 2015, the Taskforce conducted 12 months of meetings in London, Geneva and Dubai with legal, conservation, transport and customs experts.

Through that process, the BDP was developed: a set of commitments that private–sector transport companies can agree to in order to help identify and curb illegal wildlife trade. The sheer scale of the problem can be difficult to comprehend.

“It’s a $20 billion–a–year industry, impacting more than 7,000 species of animals and plants,” says Teresa Ehman, Senior Director, Environmental Affairs at Air Canada. “That’s the estimated amount that is generated illegally by plants and animals – alive, or dead, or in parts – being moved to somewhere there’s a demand.”

The commitments in the BPD include adopting a zero–tolerance policy regarding illegal wildlife trade, improving the industry’s ability to share information about illegal activities and encouraging as many members of the transport sector as possible to sign on. These measures are designed to make it harder for poachers and others to ship their illegal products to markets where they can be sold for profit.

Two rhinoceros grazing in the grass together in Africa
   Photo: Wade Lambert

Living Up to Commitments

When the BPD was introduced in 2016, Air Canada had recently adopted a policy not to carry any shipment of lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros or Cape buffalo trophies worldwide as freight, building on its longtime commitment to protect endangered wildlife in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The airline had also considered immediately signing on to the BPD but wanted to ensure they could operationalize all 11 commitments. There was, at the time, no mechanism in place to ensure that signatories were following through after signing, since United for Wildlife doesn’t have an enforcement arm.

“It was never a question of whether to sign the BPD, it was just the right timing for it,” says Linda Kudzman, Air Canada’s Manager of Environmental Management System and Programs. “Our main goal is if we sign something, we’re going to follow through on it, that’s very important to Air Canada.”

In 2019, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced an Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) certification program based on the BPD. Air Canada Cargo has developed and introduced controls and procedures to reduce the likelihood of transporting illegal wildlife and illegal wildlife products.  Air Canada has undergone the IATA IWT assessment and is now the first North American airline to be IWT certified.

A herd of African elephants
   Photo: Harshil Gudka

Environmental Impact With a Human Face

While Air Canada made the decision to sign the BPD before the global effects of the Covid–19 pandemic were known, the program does highlight the relationship between our species and the natural environment.

“There’s a connection between how wildlife is treated, how it can spread zoonotic disease, and how we’ve ended up with the potential for pandemics in the world,” says Ehman. “When we centre ourselves as an airline, we have to ask, ‘what is a positive role we can play with respect to wildlife conservation and biodiversity?’”

A swimming sea turtle illuminated by the sunlight penetrating the ocean
   Photo: Naja Bertolt Jensen

Despite the disruptions of 2020, Air Canada Cargo has pushed forward with implementing its BPD commitments. It announced that it had signed on to the Declaration on June 16, World Sea Turtle Day, and it continues to push toward a safer world for wildlife and the environment.

“I think Covid gives everyone a pause for a moment to think about what we’re doing to the world, and how everything is interconnected,” Kudzman says.